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Richard Hurst as Executioner, Amanda Hadingue as Cariola, Joan Iyiola as The Duchess

and Will Brown as Executioner. Pictures: Helen Maybanks

The Duchess of Malfi

Royal Shakespeare Company

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


Blood, guts, assassination, throttling, child murder, vengeance, virtual ravishing: The Duchess of Malfi is not, any more than Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, for the faint hearted. 

Blood, in fact, is the principle image – one might arguably say the only image – in this grisly staging by Maria Aberg of John Webster’s unusually macabre Jacobean drama that – though from an earlier English source – feels to have its roots in the most gruesome tragedies of the Spanish golden age.

The blood – and there is loads of it, perfectly coloured so as to capture the black-red ghastliness of animal and human bloodiness – stems from, gushes from, pours from a massive beheaded bull’s carcass which the Duchess, like some hapless labourer, is forced to haul, with painful faltering steps, across the Swan’s empty stage.

It hangs there strung up throughout part I, like some ominous, threatening presence, the dead hand of a slaughtered being, until early in the second half it is carved in a sudden act of violence so as to yield up its crimson innards, which splash all across the floor. From then on, no character can avoid – the spreading puddle. It is a kind of grim, leering initiation.

Thank goodness that one, perhaps two or three, characters make a powerful impact on the text, as it exudes its violence and brutality and malevolence.

Joan Iyiola is a marvellous Duchess: noble, honest, a warm mother (to offspring who will all too soon be butchered): her decency and self-control, her defence of the role of women and her seeming invulnerability to masculine bullying make Iyiola a figure who stands out and shines at every turn.

Her speaking glistens: every sequence of Webster’s well-carved textures comes over with clarity, assurance, with a lucidity that makes the lines glisten. She is a powerful presence every time she is on stage. Her intonation is like a polished gem, her cadences exquisitely modulated. And the elegance of her moves surely matches her speaking.


Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand and Joan Iyiola as The Duchess

The Duchess has a maidservant or waiting-woman, Cariola, played by Amanda Hadingue, who also understudies Iyola (that too would be worth seeing). It’s a deferential role, as one might assume, but Hadingue captures its flavour delightfully.

Demure, confidential, dedicated, deeply affectionate towards her mistress, Cariola, who will ultimately and needlessly share her mistress’s fate, is the perfect foil. Her patent morality, good-naturedness and modest restraint all serve to point up the Duchess’s own nature: she exemplifies the propriety of the household, its correctness and commitment to conduct life as it should be lived: with honour, distinction, magnanimity, and elevated social worth.

The other character who impinged most effectively on the story – at times his comments are like a kind of narration or update – is Bosola, one of the Duchess’s chief retainers. Nicolas Tennant gives us a bluff, southern accented, marginally burly but more importantly, attractively bluff figure whose general decency oozes from every pore. It will fall to him, with utter loyalty and seething anger on her behalf, to avenge the Duchess, but for the present we are faced with an essentially honest, loyal workhorse who speaks home truths and encapsulates reliability. His speaking, strong, forthright, assured, is one of the tangible pleasures of the first half. We hang on his words, and time and again we are richly rewarded.

If only one could say the same about the other male characters, whether monster or innocent. None of them is helped by the totally unaffected modern dress, which – though surely preferable to Jacobean attire, which can be fearfully clumsy – fails to differentiate them in any way either within the plot or from each other. Alexander Cobb is Ferdinand, seemingly the crueller brother, or at least the better differentiated. Yet even he, tied to his lines, delivers a pretty pallid performance, until the end when he really comes good as his – somewhat unexpected – guilt at his sister’s death turns him crazy: he makes a good madman, wild-eyed and desperate, and at least gets his proper come-uppance.

How giving his brother an ordinary cleric’s grey shirt and dog-collar and kitting him out in totally nondescript shirt and trousers creates any sense of the power of a Cardinal defeats me. Chris New suffered more than Cobb from the plain, rather wordy early scenes. We know he’s on the wrong side, part of the male-dominated society that might yield, say, a Tybalt.

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Joan Iyiola as The Duchess and Paul Woodson as Antonio

But he is not especially well-drawn by Webster, and cuts an insubstantial figure only intensified by the manner of design and direction: one could find not a single salient feature in this character to galvanise the imagination or magnify the action. There was cruelty, true, arrogance and double standards. But one longed for more.

The worst in this respect was Antonio, the supposedly lower or at least inferior class figure who wins the Duchess’s hand and sires her children – and brings about her unforgivable strangling at the hands of her brothers, or their beefy acolytes.

We see Antonio produce briefcase and documents as if to confirm his lesser mortal role as a kind of accountant. But he plays the role like that too. A Geordie accent guaranteed many of his lines would emerge undefined, or at least elusive. He is a plain, dull, functional type – a loving father admittedly – who brings little evidence of why the Duchess is so charmed by him. All in all, a bit of a wet blanket.

The two or three loud musical explosions, where a chorus of thugs suggests an indeterminate threat, in fact feel limp and inept. What does impact is their singing, which is pure joy and an unexpected delight.

Indeed Orlando Gough’s score - he has made a marked impact at Glyndebourne and beyond – is a considerable asset when it’s nearly hushed, using brushed or gently struck percussion, for instance, and a host of comparable sounds that would not go down badly on Caliban’s island. Music can be one of the disasters of such stagings (and films, even more so). Here was quite the opposite: an acute musical intelligence that enhanced the action rather than detracted. How nice it is when one encounters that. To 03-08-18.

Roderic Dunnett


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